Pat Talbott learned the value of recycling from her Norwegian grandmother.
Talbott, a 71-year-old Cathlamet resident, has spent 35 years repurposing fur coats from animals such as minks, skunks, alpacas and rabbits to create teddy bears she shows and sells.
She would never wear fur, Talbott said. Over the years, however, she found a steady supply of unwanted coats and other outerwear in auctions and thrift shops.
People would spend thousands of dollars on a jacket and, later, when they died or perhaps came under criticism from animal rights activists, the clothing would be abandoned. The waste tugged at Talbott’s heart, and she decided to use her artistic skills to sew bears. The resulting stuffed animals are delightful to touch and a lasting tribute to the animals that had been sacrificed for coats.
“At one time the fur trade was huge in this country,” Talbott said. “We killed so many animals, and there are still so many coats out there.”
Her husband, Bill, recalls when an upscale department store went out of business in Seattle. A Seattle socialite went there and purchased a fur that originally cost $10,000 on final clearance.
“She wore it one time to the symphony or opera and got booed,” Bill said. The woman contracted with Pat Talbott to make bears from it.
Before moving to Cathlamet 12 years ago, the Talbotts lived in Woodinville, Wash. That’s where she created her own patterns, which she cuts out of plastic so they can be reused.
At first, she stitched the bears by hand, then purchased a fur sewing machine from a shop in the Seattle area.
“It’s about a hundred years old,” she said of the machine, which purred along as she used cotton thread to stitch the pieces together. “Basically, it’s just a chain stitcher, heavy-duty, made to go through hide.”
She uses at least 60 pairs of scissors, each one razor sharp. They are expensive utensils, but worth the price, she said.
“I can get right down to the base of the hair, and I don’t have too much trouble keeping them sharp. I’ve only worn down one pair,” she said.
Over the years, Talbott’s stockpile of furs has grown. Health concerns prompted her to move her workshop to the upstairs portion of the house, where she works near a bed piled high with furs of various colors.
For a time, Talbott stopped working on the bears, but now she’s back in the creative swing, working around her three-day a week kidney dialysis routine.
Everything she needs is reachable in her upstairs room and in a work area she set up in the living room where she does the finishing work and applies noses and eyes.
Each fur type comes with its own challenges, she said, some of which don’t become apparent until she has started working on a bear.
“You can get a bear done, and suddenly it tears,” she said. “One of my bears, with a white face, it tore right over the eyes, so I gave him an eye patch.”
Sheepskin “can rot,” she said, which she discovered recently. “I got it done and found a rotten spot, so now I’m having to make a patch for it.”
In addition to using fur for the bears’ bodies, she also recycles kidskin leather for the toys’ noses and vintage jet glass beads for the eyes. The materials offer a wide range of expression, she said.
“The same with the eyes. I like them because the other type scare little kids,” Talbott said. “One of my customers told me years ago that my bears lightly watch, not psychotically stare.”
No two bears are alike, but some creations have special distinction. When a friend who ran a consignment shop happened onto a haute couture runway coat from the 1960s, Talbott scooped it up.
She was able to make six bears out of the pastel-toned, multicolored fur.
“A woman came into a shop in Seattle where I was with one of the bears, and she said, ‘I have one of those,’ ” Talbott said. “It was a woman from Colorado who had purchased the first bear I had made out of the (pastel) fur. There are only six bears in the world that look like that.”
Families often bring a fur to her and ask her to make bears or other mementoes out of it.
Talbott is happy to oblige their request, which goes well with her other love — oral history. “Our strongest memories come from our sense of touch and smell,” she said.
“When the bears are done from grandma’s fur, then everyone wants to sit down and talk about grandma,” she said. She sees a transformation take place when her clients hold the bears in their hands.
Talbott’s bears, which start at about $250, are not sold in stores, she said. “The bears tend to get shopworn. People like to handle them, but not buy them.” Lately, however, she has begun researching some tourist venues at the coast. She also donates bears to causes that are close to her heart, including an upcoming English tea that will raise money for Cathlamet’s St. James Family Center.
“The family center does great things for this community,” Talbott said.
Most people understand she reuses abandoned fur coats and does not purchase new coats for her creations, Talbott said. One time, after a show in Renton, a teen-ager wrote her a letter about using all those poor animals.
Bill remembers his wife’s response. “Would you rather that they just get thrown out in the garbage?”
The young woman wrote back, saying she understood.
Preserving the remnants of a beautiful animal is a matter of ethics for Talbott.
“Many of them just break my heart,” she said. “I worked on a gray icelandic fur that we extincted.” The seal fur, she said, dated from about 1910, when the animals were still being hunted. Now, “all of them are gone.”